One could make an argument that the overwhelming dominance that Donald J. Trump still seems to exercise over the Republican Party does not guarantee him the GOP nomination if he chooses to attempt a comeback in 2024. After all, some of those who are eyeing the presidency probably hope to convince him he does not need to seek vengeance for the election Joe Biden allegedly stole from him; his legacy is secure, and can safely be handed off to a younger pol from the long list of those who have kissed his posterior over the last four years and change.
Some probably think the early 2024 polling also shows Trump is losing his grip on the party faithful: The latest Morning Consult trial heat shows him leading the pack for the next GOP nomination, but with less than a majority:
To put these numbers in context, though, it’s useful to take a look at how well Trump polled when he was rolling along the road to the 2016 nomination. According to FiveThirtyEight, the day he nailed down the nomination in early May, his support among Republican candidates in the polls was averaging 46.1 percent. In fact, he didn’t win a majority in any state primary until New York on April 19, and he actually lost four GOP contests after March 22 (Utah, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Wyoming).
The secret to Trump’s early success in 2016 is that he kept beating a divided field of opponents with significantly less than majority support. Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul dropped out after Iowa; Chris Christie quit after New Hampshire; Jeb Bush after South Carolina; and Marco Rubio after Florida.
If he attempts a comeback, beating Trump for the 2024 nomination would almost certainly require an early consolidation of support behind a single non-Trump candidate. And who would that be? His ultrasycophantic (until January 6) veep? The Florida governor who was a nobody until Trump endorsed him in 2018? Nikki Haley, who has already pre-endorsed Trump if he runs? Don Jr.?
Part of the problem in handicapping such a contest is that there really aren’t any precedents for a defeated former president winning a subsequent presidential nomination unless you go all the way back to Grover Cleveland in 1892. Herbert Hoover got a maximum of 32 votes from 1,000 delegates at the 1940 Republican convention eight years after he lost the White House. Nobody talked about a presidential comeback for Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, or George H.W. Bush. Putting aside those who won once and thus had a record to defend, there have been a handful of losing major-party nominees who got nominated again; only Richard Nixon was subsequently elected, and that was with a disastrous landslide loss by Barry Goldwater in the interim. Henry Clay (1832 and 1844), William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, and 1908) and Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956) won multiple nominations that produced multiple losing general-election campaigns. Such candidacies appear to have been a relic of the pre-primary era.
Until last year, Trump’s age in 2024 (78) would have seemed amazing. But Biden was nominated and elected at 77. So long as Trump keeps his diabolical good health, his age won’t be a bar. Obviously a lot could happen in the next couple of years before the 2024 presidential nominating contest begins in earnest. But at this point, all the Republican propitiation of the former president’s ego and subscription to his mendacious conspiracy theories are more likely to keep him on track to a comeback than to push him into the dustbin of history. No one in his party really laid a glove on him in 2016, and no one since has really challenged him with anything like a mass rank-and-file following. He has to be considered the front-runner for the 2024 nomination so long as he wants it. It would help, though, if he stays out of prison.